There Are No Islands

This afternoon I put the Smith River garden down. Granted, one does not dig a hole out back, lead the garden to the edge, and shoot it, even though all morning I felt as though I were driving out to put my old horse out of our collective misery. In these parts you kill a garden simply by taking down the deer fence. I was unarmed, so on the way in I stopped at Jerry and Martha’s and borrowed a fence post puller, and stopped inside the Johnny Gunter cabin for a pair of wire pliers.

Even though it was Memorial Day Weekend, it had been a cold, rain-filled, godforsaken spring and the grass was still wet, so I had to make a run at the hill. I pulled the utility trailer into my parking place between the big old apple tree and the garden gate and got out, hoping that the garden didn’t suspect what was coming, that it would never know what hit it. The annual rye I’d planted for ground cover last fall was a foot and half high, with pale green seed heads beginning to ripen and nod over. Volunteer kale that had fed me all winter were four feet tall and sporting clusters of small, bright yellow flowers. Sheep sorrel, the damned sheep sorrel that was always sneaking under the fence like a stray cat in heat, had made it inside and was happily flowering too. This afternoon digging it out would be as useful as picking fleas off the old horse.

Gray clouds swirled in from the west, dropping heavy mist while I traveled from post to post using the pliers to remove the clips that had held the eight-foot woven wire fence in place, the thin barrier protecting the garden from protracted death by grazing. I jacked the red metal posts out of the wet ground and clanged them into the trailer. Grabbing the fencing, I heaved backwards, pulling it loose from the grass and knapweed that over the years had grown tightly around the bottom, then gathered it into an eight-foot-long cylinder and barrel-rolled it across the meadow to the barn. No boundaries now existed between the garden and the wild world outside, no more reason for me to mow and till and fertilize and plant and weed and water and harvest. The deer and elk would have their way with it.

You see, the garden was never mine, at least in the narrowest sense of possession. When the logging company next door had come to take their trees out, they surveyed the property line. Come to find out, my garden was on their side of the line. They were nice about it—said I could keep gardening there as long as I liked. But after clearcutting the hillside they planted the meadow to Douglas fir seedlings. That’s what logging companies do—they plant, grow, and cut down Douglas fir.

Unfortunately they also spray herbicides over the landscape, presumably toward one end—to grow more fir trees faster. So a sea of chemicals now surrounded my garden. This isn’t just a figment of my overstimulated imagination; the meadow is turning browner by the day except for the 30- x 45-foot parcel that was not sprayed because they were nice to me and spared my garden.

But there are no islands, not in this meadow, not anywhere. My garden beds have damp spots where water has percolated up through the soil from somewhere nearby, and all the surrounding ground has now been bathed in herbicides. The chemicals will wash off the meadow and hillside into the little creek where torrent and giant salamanders live, and the creek will carry the stuff through the culvert under the road and into the marsh in the valley bottom where chorus frogs breed, and the marsh water will seep into Smith River where orange crawdads crawl and baby Coho swim.

There are no islands. Yet surveyors walk the land with the gadgets of their trade—sextant, compass, clinometer, theodolite—sighting imaginary lines, pissing out make-believe corners with stakes and gaudy colored plastic tape. The surveyors write numbers on a piece of paper describing this fantasy. Then somebody somewhere finds some money, probably not even their own, and purchases that little piece of paper, and the fantasy of ownership continues with rights and privileges that may or may not have anything to do with the connectivity of the biosphere. The surveyor’s sextant is agnostic to even the most straightforward of realities, such as gravity and flowing water, never mind the shifting complexities of southwesterly storm winds and sunshine and shadows where calypso orchids bloom and the way in which baby salmon hide.

Nevertheless, this afternoon I gave a nod and a bow to the imaginary lines of ownership. I can’t grow my food in a place surrounded by plant poisons that the people who own the property have every legal right to spray. From now on, the Smith River Memorial Garden will be only that—a memory.